DANANG – Nguyen Nguc Phuong is 33 years of age and a confident, articulate public speaker – comfortable on a podium in front of an audience. He is resourceful and self-motivated, as seen in his decision to leave school at 16 and relocate to Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, to learn to be a mechanic and an electrician. Nguyen later returned to his hometown of Danang, one of Vietnam’s more touristy cities, and opened his own repair shop. However, after seeing the impact of Agent Orange – a defoliant sprayed by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to destroy the crops and jungle upon which the Viet Cong relied for food and cover – he decided he wanted to volunteer his time to help the children born mentally or physically handicapped due to the herbicide’s tragic and grotesque effects. “I wanted to become a teacher to do something for them,” he says, pointing out to over 40 children and teenagers at the Danang Peace Village – a center run by the Danang Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin to care for children and teenagers affected by Agent Orange.
VINH KHE COMMUNE, QUANG TRI PROVINCE — It was a controlled explosion, and shouldn’t have been a surprise, but the boom a couple of hundred yards away in this lush, rainswept district of central Vietnam nonetheless prompted the small group of nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, locals, diplomats, and journalists there to witness the event to flinch and recoil. Then the relieved-looking group exhaled almost in unison, a nervous-sounding release as if mimicking the puffs of smoke rising from the explosion into the gray sky. Taking the blast in his stride, though not literally, however, was 14-year-old Duong Nhat Binh, a shy-looking, soft-spoken teenager wearing a “FBI”-emblazoned baseball cap. Two years ago he had a much closer encounter with a fragment of the estimated 800,000 tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) thought to remain hidden in the grass and jungles around Vietnam, endangering lives and hindering local economies. “I was on the way back from school, and I saw this metal thing in the grass. I picked it up and put it in my pocket and went home,” he recalls. “I did not know what it was.”
LAIZA — The Burmese army is using underage boys for forced labour and is coercing porters to fight on the front line against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), according to accounts given to The Irrawaddy by four teenagers who say they served as porters for the army. Two of the four say they are under 18, and two others, age 18 and 19, say they were forced to march in front of infantry as the soldiers approached KIO/KIA positions. All four say they were coerced into joining the Tatmadaw (the name for the Burmese army) after being promised jobs by army officers, at different locations and at different times during 2011. Burma’s government forces have long been accused of forcing civilians to work as porters and for using child soldiers in its campaigns against ethnic militias in the country’s borderlands. According to January 2012 figures, since 2007 there have been 1,160 forced labour complaints registered with the International Labour Organization, which recently agreed with the Burmese government to renew its complaints process for another year.